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God really doesn’t matter

Dear Genice,

Admittedly, the truth about the Biblegod is as I gather it from a number of sources.

As far as the literary aspects of this discussion, I teach a reading seminar in Western Civilization (I and II). We read 14-15 key books in the course. Among them are Myths and Legends of Babylonia and Assyria, a seminal work of comparative history and religion. Another is Myths from Mesopotamia: Creation, the Flood, Gilgamesh, and Others.

In both books, the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Creation, and other Genesis-like stories are translated and interpreted. The similarities between these stories and the Jewish creation tale is amazing.

In addition, I’ve read the Bible who knows how many times, and keep one close all the time. Astounding for a nonbeliever, eh? Not really. It’s a nice reference and like Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, Alan Watts’ The Art of Zen, and W. Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge, I find a great deal of comfort seeing that suffering and human emotion have not changed all that much over time. My particular favorite is the Book of Job, in which God has a pissing contest with the Lord of Perdition and uses poor Job as his subject. In the end, Job gets a great payoff. It’s a very human story that makes me always wonder if all the goods he received for his suffering was worth the loss of his loved ones.

I like looking at the Genesis story mostly because the three authors and the synthesis of their separate stories become apparent after many readings. Moreover, God just comes to. It acts like a child. Through the Old Testament, it matures, becoming quieter, less wrathful, less apparent in the lives of its subjects, until, after David, it ceases to speak to human beings at all. Jack Miles did a great job of looking at the bible from a critical literary perspective in a wonder and easily read book called, God: A Biography.

As well, the separate authorships of the Gospels and the times and people for which they were written amaze me. I think you know that the Gospels were all authored long after the death of Jesus (65-120 AD) by people who didn’t know him. The texts had no titles until about 180 AD–about the time a church organization, as such, began to form in reaction to the Gnostics. There were, in fact, many gospels–the Gnostic Gospels–several of which put Jesus in the ground and left him there.

In addition, each of the four canon gospels were written for specific audiences–Matthew for Antioch, Mark for Rome, and John for Persians in the western region of present-day Iran. The audience for Luke is in debate among biblical scholars.

Innocent I began to assemble a canon around the 5th century, choosing not only the gospels that most clergy favored, but also those that put Jesus in the most divine light. This is why the Gnostic Gospels are not in the New Testament. In some of them, Jesus dies. Period.

Now we may not like to think that the bible is a manipulative document. Rather, we’d rather think it written by a God-influenced human hand. But it, like all books, tell the stories of those who have the power to write or assemble them. Knowing some of the ancient history of the church, it’s hard not to think that clergy were not all that divinely inspired in their editing.

So, from a critical literary and historical perspective, it seems to me the resurrection is a matter of metaphor rather than reality. Most people read the bible in an a-historical context. That is, it is presented and read as if it were a book of history and historical fact rather than a historical artifact and a text that has a history and development. Plus, there are so many translations of the bible that it is difficult to ferret out even a definitive meaning from any biblical passage. There are only general agreements–God made, Joshua blew down the walls of Jericho, Jesus (whose real name was Joshua) died and rose again.

This kind of ambiguity is even admitted in the Jewish tradition. Students at Yeshiva study the Talmud, a document of various versions in which each passage of the Pentateuch is surrounded by biblical commentary from various Jewish scholars, who, in a sense, argue as the document unfolds.

So, the question in my mind is that if the document tells a story tailored to those who wanted to control the story, did the resurrection even take place? Was Jesus a real human being? It is likely that there was a teacher, but do we get the story he or she wanted to tell? Or do we get a story written to preserve power?

Regardless of the answer, one thing I know is that humans have souls. It may be one soul in the Emersonian sense. It may be the deathlessness of the Buddha. It may be a re-embodiment of the personality, like that of the Christian and Islamic traditions. It may be the rather large question mark of the Jewish tradition. To me, it doesn’t matter. It has little to do with working to relieve the pain of those who suffer in this life, the highest moral good we can accomplish.

Whatever the case, a great book that may interest you is William James’ classic work, The Varieties of Religious experience. It really poses the question, again unanswerable: Is religious/spiritual experience otherworldly or a production of the human mind? In either case, it’s something special, personal, and inescapable.

I also want to suggest a great text of literary critique and historical context in The Bible as Literature.

And now it is late, so I will leave you with Walt Whitman’s restatement of a passage from Luke:

“This is what you shall do; Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to every one that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families…re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul, and your very flesh shall be a great poem and have the richest fluency not only in its words but in the silent lines of its lips and face and between the lashes of your eyes and in every motion and joint of your body.”

—Preface to the 1855 Edition, “The Leaves of Grass,” Walt Whitman

Always yours,
Patrick

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